If you want to see the future of TV, open the Podcasts app

JANUARY 10TH, 2016 — POST 006

I mentioned earlier this week John Landgraf’s, President and General Manager of FX Network, most quotable moment so far: TV has reached saturation point, “There is simply too much television.” However, as with any quote of this sort, context is important to keep in sight. What was specifically meant is that scripted, serialised TV has reached saturation point. Furthermore, what Landgraf has expressed both in this Variety interview and subsequent interviews is that there actually isn’t nearly enough non-serialised TV. Formats such as panel and variety shows still overwhelmingly remain the domain of the networks. Landgraf’s gradner point is that the resources put into the production of sub-par scrited TV should instead be funnelled into non-scripted, a move that would balance out premium cable and streaming services.

But what would a premium cable and streaming approach to the production of non-scripted content even look like? Scripted, and specifically drama, was revolutionised outside of the networks, almost single-handedly by HBO with The Sopranos and The Wire, so it’s hard to imagine a world in which something like The Tonight Show would work on premium cable or streaming. Additionally, and something that’s a unique problem of streaming services, so much of the most successful non-scripted programming on network, and even something like Real Time with Bill Maher has some temporal constraint: whether having to be live like sports, or, in the case of a Late Night show, hinging on events that might no longer be current once a viewer has caught up on it.

There are two series on streaming services that are currently receiving significant press that illuminate the place non-scripted could hold for premium cable and streaming. The first is in its 7th season, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Seemingly inexhaustably repeatable, Comedians In Cars… is hosted by Jerry Seinfeld and basically does what it says on the tin: Seinfeld drives around a comedian in a classic car and they shoot the shit, then they grab coffee and shoot some more shit. The simplicity of the format is obviously extremely talent-dependent for its success. There aren’t many Seinfelds, and even less that doing this kind of show would appeal to. But what’s most striking about the format, to me at least, is that it is essentially Podcast+1. It is not that far from KCRW’s The Treatment, or WTF with Marc Maron, or any other one-on-one interview podcast in which conversation is loosely centred on a shared interest. Comedians In Cars…’s +1 is just the visual beats of car, coffee shop, car so this thing isn’t shot in a podcast studio. Two things are surprising about this. The first is that, unless you want to rewatch The Patriot and Rudy, Comedians In Cars is the sole reason for opening up Crackle. The second is that this Podcast+1 content just isn’t there on premium cable and streaming more broadly.

The complete other end of the spectrum in terms of non-scripted content you find on podcasts are the non-fiction, seasonal epics. Serial and Start Up are the best examples of this model. As Sarah Koenig says at the beginning of each Serial episode: “One story told week by week.” One season, one story. The second non-scripted series currently streaming is the perfect example of this: Making A Murderer. Whether the series can be repeated, with a different story each season, remains to be seen. But as it stands now, the structure is uncannily similar to that of Serial. The filmmakers even leave it up to pure audio to relay some of the heavier story beats, often laid over just B-roll of the Avery Auto Yard. But this is definitely not a Podcast+1 approach. For one, there is care paid to linger on the expressions of those being interviewed, especially in the deposition footage. This marks it as distinctly televisual yet maintaining the narrative voice of something like Serial. Hopefully other services will be able to draw this parellel as well. Making A Murderer is proof that the delivery of non-fiction content through podcasts like Serial and Start Up can be replicated to great success. I would rather watch 3 or 4 series like this a year than trawl through sub-par drama.

A screenshot from That Dragon, Cancer — the subject of Reply All’s 50th episode

But the interview and seasonal epic formats are two ends of the spectrum of what podcasts are currently owning. The darlings of the medium tell stories much richer than could be drawn out in an interview, and the freedom of pure audio results in something between documentary and novel but distinct from either. At the same time, these same darlings tell the kind of stories that can be captured in a single episode, making them more approachable than the seasonal epics. I’m talking of course of NPR’s, Gimlet’s, and Radiotopia’s core properties: This American Life to Planet Money, Mystery Show to Reply All, 99% Invisible to Criminal. With each episode following a separate story, there is no commitment required on the part of the listener like there would be with a seasonal epic. If TV truly wants to fill in a space that it currently doesn’t have so much as a big toe in, it would be this space: the dramatic vignette (Vice is really the one owning this, but exclusively on YouTube). The production of dramatic vignette content by premium cable and streaming services would essentially allow them to have their cake and eat it too.

This format is extrememly malleable and, judging by the diversity of those that exist in the podcast space, has potentially limitless appeal — just pick a theme and find your stories within that theme. (It seems so far that) this theme could literally be anything. Furthermore, the production values and human narrative voice so expertly pioneered by NPR and developed further by newer companies, is a perfect fit for the generation of prestige titles: titles that will drive potential subscribers to a platform. The capacity for analytic and explainer press is greatly increased: there is a new story every week to be trawled over and understood. Above all, though, the commitment required by the viewer is significantly reduced. Clicking play no longer will mean they’re basically signing tens of hours away. The incentive for a viewer to binge watch is slightly reduced, but this loss given the above gains would seem to make this an obvious choice for any programmer.

All I’m asking is you swap out your bottom tier serialised drama for some non-scripted dramatic vignettes and I’m hooked. I’m guessing a whole bunch more people would be too.

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